A Gilded Age Thriller

By Elizabeth Barnhill

Former Baylor professor Gerald Powell brings a lifetime of legal experience to his fictional series

Gerald Powell looks at his legal career in three acts. Act one: After graduating number one in his class at Baylor Law School, he spent time as a partner in a trial law firm in Dallas. Act two: Moving back to Waco with his wife Barbara after being called to teach at Baylor Law School in the practice court program. Professor Powell was a very popular evidence professor for a generation of Baylor law students.

And now in act three, he has transitioned from molding new attorneys to creating them, using his lifetime of legal experiences to write courtroom thrillers set in his hometown of Waco.
Powell always enjoyed writing in his free time but became more serious about it when retirement loomed. He shared that legal writing was not very good training for writing fiction; he had to get rid of everything he learned about writing legal briefs in order to write for entertainment.

Powell explained, “Lawyers’ stock and trade is our use of language. The part of practicing law that I loved was the creativity that is essential in the courtroom as well as on the written page. When I was thinking about writing fiction, I learned that you should write what you know, and there were only a couple of things that I knew anything about. One was lawyering and the other was Waco. I put them together to write the series.”

The result of this endeavor is the “Catfish Calloway for the Defense” series. Powell has published the first two books in the series, “The Sporting House Killing” and “The Suspension Bridge Robbery”, and there are more books forthcoming.

“What I found was that I really had great fun doing it,” Powell said. “I would write in the predawn hours of the morning while I was still working at the Law School; I would write for an hour and then get ready for class and go teach. I looked forward to that writing hour every single day and did it seven days a week because it was so much fun.”

Powell decided to set the Catfish Calloway series in Waco during the Gilded Age because “that time period jumped out at me. So many iconic people and events occurred then. You think about Judge Baylor and Rufus Burleson, William Cowper Brann, the Cotton Palace and The Reservation which is absolutely a unique part of our history. It all happened in that ten-to-twenty-year time period.”

In his research, Powell studied old court records and the archives of The Texas Collection. Jim Hunt, archivist at The Texas Collection, was particularly helpful. Powell knew that the authenticity of places and events would be important to Wacoans, and he believes he succeeded in achieving historical accuracy.

In the two books of the series, the reader follows the illustrious career of Catfish Calloway.

“My main character had to be a trial lawyer because my heroes have always been trial lawyers,” Powell said. “Throughout my career, I ran across a number of really colorful trial lawyers and also read stories about other memorable attorneys. Catfish is an amalgamation of a bunch of those lawyers. He is an optimist, a person who believes in right and wrong, strong-willed and I wanted him to be a champion of the downtrodden.”

In his first book, “The Sporting House Killing”, Catfish deals with the moral and emotional crisis that arose from his unfortunate decision to defend his own son in a murder case. This goes terribly wrong, and then his buddy from the Civil War needs his help when his son is also accused of murder. Catfish has to wrestle with what he wants to do with the remainder of his days as an attorney.

In “The Suspension Bridge Robbery”, Catfish’s character is more fleshed out, along with his son, his partner Harley and his stenographer Ms. Peach. A villain arises in the first two books, with the resolution coming in the third, forthcoming book.

The Catfish Calloway series is self-published by Powell. He has spoken to twenty or thirty groups in Texas, including the Austin Woman’s Club, the Henry Downs Chapter of the Daughters of the Republic, the Barnes and Noble Mystery Book Club, the Baylor Round Table, Art Center Waco and a large gathering at Fabled Bookshop and Cafe.

“I love speaking to women’s groups around Waco. It’s always fun to talk to them about things such as the most successful businesswoman in Waco in the 1890s, who happened to have been the proprietor of a sporting house which was on the site of our convention center now.”

“The Sporting House Killing” was a finalist for the American Bar Association Silver Gavel Award in the Fiction and Literature category. Powell’s third book in the Catfish Calloway series, “The Tonkawa Falls Affair”, should be complete by Christmas. “The Catfish Calloway for the Defense” series can be found in the Texas section of Fabled Bookshop.

“I’m just grateful to have the opportunity to write something that somebody will read,” Powell said. “I was so surprised that people liked the stories and wanted more. That is immensely gratifying.”